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  • Beyond All Reason: Living With Ideology in the University
  • Harland G. Bloland
Beyond All Reason: Living With Ideology in the University by Ronald Barnett. Buckingham, UK: SRHE and Open University Press, 2003. 231 pages. Cloth $34.95. ISBN 0-335-20893-2.

This is an optimistic book despite the strong case made by Barnett that the university exists in a turbulent, risky, supercomplex society and that it is the university itself that has helped spawn the pernicious ideologies that pervade higher education institutions. Barnett argues that the liberal university, the institution that stands for and furthers the life of reason, is in grave trouble in the contemporary age. The idea that the university is foremost the site of reason is being seriously undermined, as the universities become more deeply enmeshed in environments over which they have little control. In addition, the epistemological foundations embedded in universities, that is, knowledge, truth, and reason have diminished capacity to persuade in this age. In a previous work, Realizing the University (2000), Barnett developed the notion of supercomplexity, a concept which emphasized that the multiple and rival frameworks through which we understand our situation are incommensurable, generating contested [End Page 709] metanarratives that cannot be put together to rationally order the world in which we live. Nevertheless, he strongly believes there is hope for the university.

Barnett asks, "Is the university possible?", and argues that despite its precarious state, the university might still endure. His view is that the university is in difficulty, in part, because it is beset by ideologies that have made the university an ideological institution. By ideologies, he means belief systems that are governed by interests, that is, ideologies involve collective identities that seek to achieve certain ends. Of the three primary elements of ideology, the ontological, which establishes identity, is the most important, overshadowing both the epistemological, which provides the orientation toward knowledge, and the communicative, which in its ideal state means undistorted communication. The most pernicious ideologies have been introduced both willingly and unwillingly to the liberal university from the outside. These ideologies stem from the supercomplex, fragile society in which universities dwell, the driving forces of which are globalism, the state, information technology, and multinational corporations. The university itself is a generator of supercomplexity through its constant, restless innovation through research. On the other hand, the virtuous ideologies of the university are generated internally.

Barnett is a committed modernist. He finds postmodernists overly zealous in a project to transform the world, and in error in so stridently dismissing metanarratives. In fact, Barnett makes the astute observation that rather than experiencing a condition of disappearing metanarratives, we are inundated with them. Yet, like many other modernists, Barnett places us in an age of postmodernity, and he readily calls upon the postmodern vocabulary to make his argument (Bloland, 2003), for example, "metanarrative" and "performativity" from Lyotard, and upon the whole panoply of concepts that postmodernists use to describe the current age, for example, "uncertainty," "contestability," "reflexivity," "turbulence," " fragility".

The book is divided into three parts, each of which has four chapters, with an introduction and closing section on the prospects of the university. The heart of the book discusses four pernicious ideologies and four virtuous ideologies.

In Part 1, Barnett introduces his understanding of what reason is, asserts its centrality to the university, and outlines the circumstances that limit reason. He describes and interprets supercomplexity and its impact on the university, and describes the ambivalence of the university in the face of what the author names "the contaminated environment."

The four chapters of Part 2 cover pernicious ideologies - competition, entrepreneurialism, quality, (although a positive idea generally, quality is rendered pernicious when it involves external audits and measurement by state imposed standards), and managerialism. However, each ideology has in it the possibility of virtue.

In Part 3, Barnett discusses in four chapters the virtuous ideologies or "idealogies," the elements of which are: community, communication, identity, and evaluation. Idealogies give substance to the rational ideals of the university and can act as counterweights to the pernicious ideologies. Both pernicious and virtuous ideologies have positive and negative features, but overcommitment (going too far) can make even...


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pp. 709-712
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